The Injustice of our Over-Sexualized Society

I’ve heard/read a lot of discussion about sex recently. More so than usual, in fact. I think perhaps Ms. Cyrus’ glorification of wanton, objectifying lust at the recent Video Music Awards (VMAs) is chiefly responsible for re-kindling this long-running social debate.

Because much of our interaction occurs on the internet, there has been a glut of responses to the VMA performance, particularly, and been some popular blog posts on the subject of over-sexualized young people, generally. Social media friends of mine have posted among themselves two articles in particular that caught my attention. The first is an “FYI” (for your information) by one Mrs. Hall to girls who post sexy pictures of themselves on social media; the second is one of many dismayed responses to that “FYI.”

I’m not here to criticize (at least, to criticize any more than stating my opinions and thoughts should be construed as criticism). My heart goes out to Ms. Cyrus because I worry that sometime in the future she will regret her lascivious performance at the VMAs. She may regret it because she’s tired of hearing about it, or because she worries what her parents, future boyfriends, or future husbands will think, or because she doesn’t want her children (if she decides to have any) to see her in that degrading sexual way.

Worst of all, she may even have relationship troubles and/or decide not to have children because of that performance (and it’s backlash).

After all, many have pointed out that it was an excellent attention-getter, and in my experience most people who want attention have some emptiness inside they hope the attention will fill. If that’s true with Ms. Cyrus, then it’s likely that she will cling at least partially to whatever ideology of hedonism or reckless youth inspired her to create her drug-celebrating, sex-celebrating, promiscuity-celebrating song–or to, er, ‘perform’ Mr. Robin Thicke’s sex-celebrating song–in the first place, because it got her some attention. It’s also something of an ideology today to forego regret and embrace mistakes, because…well, I don’t know. A sign of maturity is recognizing past mistakes and resolving to do better, which is also a form of atoning for those mistakes, and which implies regret (because if you didn’t regret it, then why was it a mistake?). Unfortunately, refusing to admit mistakes and celebrating promiscuity do not conduce to long-term, loving, trusting relationships. As I am fortunate enough to be in such a long-term, loving, and trusting relationship, and I realize just what I wonderful thing it is, I hope that Ms. Cyrus (along with everyone else) finds it in her life.

So I hope my concern is warrantless. But the idea of celebrating sex, and the idea of freedom from mistakes and regrets, is not limited to Ms. Cyrus or Mr. Thicke. We’ve all had those ideas in our lives, because we’ve all experienced the excitement, desire, and lust for sex, as well as the unpleasant guilt, anger, and depression that comes from making a mistake (and for the record, I’m talking about all mistakes here, not just the relationship ones. Botched interviews, incomplete projects, hurtful words, everything). It’s a psychological certainty that as we begin to experience sexual desire, we will model our parents’ behavior towards the same. It’s also virtually certain that our reckless teenage brains will revolt against our parents’ staid views, and that we will in some way, big or small, experiment with sexuality. And by the time we are full adults, most of us will have had some actual sexual experiences (good, bad, and ugly) and will have reflected a bit on them: rarely maybe just by ourselves but certainly when confronted with those we hurt along the way, or those who loved us along the way, or our own pain or heartbreak.

All that reflection certainly does not mean the end of sexual desire or the freedom that we felt as teenagers. In a good relationship, such ‘teenage feelings’ ought to be part of the emotional connection. Certainly a multi-thousand-year-old canon of love stories, love songs, love poetry, and well, love bears witness to the fact that at our best, we don’t grow out of excitement, desire, and carefree recklessness. We might temper it with some restraining virtue as our prefrontal cortex develops in our mid-20s, but we don’t get rid of it. How would our relationships last otherwise?

But our collective experience of these things should teach us not to condemn it in our youth. I think it’s a pity that today’s teenagers got to see the VMAs, it’s a pity they have such easy access to sometimes very disturbing pornography, and it’s a pity that social media makes people so accessible. But if a teenager, boy or girl, is interested or desirous of sexuality, that’s neither bad nor good–it’s totally amoral. It’s a result of their development as a human being. The only negative about it their exposure to what I would consider unhealthy sexuality (Ms. Cyrus’ performance, disturbing pornography), and the fact the entire world can see their development and their mistakes via social media.

The original FYI subtly condemned some young women–friends of the sons of the author–who posted sexually alluring pictures of themselves on social media websites. Ignoring the fact that it was cruel and demeaning criticism, with detailed and contemptuous noting of a lack of a bra, or an arched back, the article explicitly held the young women responsible for the possibility of unhealthy sexual thoughts in Mrs. Hall’s sons. The responses are consequently fun to read: they point out that young men also post pictures of themselves in sexually alluring (in a masculine way) poses; and more to the point they note that whatever desire a young man might feel, healthy or not, it is his responsibility and his alone to behave well.

I won’t rehash their arguments, but I encourage you to check them out. If you happen to think that the alluring or sexy behavior of a young woman, however self-demeaning it might be, is an good reason for you to treat her demeaningly yourself, then perhaps you in particular need to read the responses.

I wish, however, to add two additional considerations. The first is a study which showed that a male confronted with a picture of a scantily-clad, sexually alluring female has increased activity in the area of his brain that relates to tools and other items he can manipulate; the second is the fact that nothing we record and/or post on line is ever, ever erased in our frighteningly new technological age.

The first consideration helps explain (but certainly does NOT excuse) why men are disposed to treat women who present themselves sexually worse than they ought. It also probably explains why Mrs. Hall, who no doubt wishes for her sons to grow up into respectful and gentlemanly men, has some misplaced (and justly condemned) anger against the sexy selfies she saw on social media.

The second consideration is really more of a personal preservation piece of advice. Fortunately most of us, if we ever made an exhibition of ourselves like Ms. Cyrus did, (publicly or to a partner), we can safely hide it away in our past where we won’t have to explain ourselves to future partners, spouses, or children. Social media took off after I had graduated from college, and I shudder to think what my statuses or pictures would have shown had I been able to post them publicly. Now, sexy selfies, videos of less-than-respectable party behavior (whether silly drunkenness or salacious dares) and other records of typically reckless, experimental teenage behavior are there for the viewing–by everyone. Literally, everyone in the world. They’ve been used to bully and demean, too. Make no mistake that such evidence which may by right be personal and private, but by reality are accessible to everyone, may determine to a large degree one’s reputation.

Furthermore, while I personally hold that promiscuous, reckless, or demeaning behavior is equally bad in girls and boys, I don’t think that’s a very widely held perspective. Mrs. Hall, along with (no doubt) many mothers of sons, seems predisposed to blame alluring young women for the vicious thoughts of men; the male frat-boy locker room culture of male college students and young professionals seems to have no problem with the essential hypocrisy of demanding easy sex but condemning ‘easy women.’ Which is very unfair. Food for thought.

So if you do find yourself looking at a sexy selfie of a young girl on some social media site (Mrs. Hall and any other parent or teenager), remember that the young person in question is probably in the process of discovering sexuality for the first time, and is maybe expressing a totally understandable and fairly universal desire to be attractive to the opposite sex, and is ultimately behaving just like the young men who post shirtless pictures of themselves at the beach. And if you argue that it’s ‘boys being boys’ for the young men, but find yourself feeling shocked and/or condemnatory about the young women, then perhaps we should re-evaluate the phrase, ‘boys will be boys’ and advise our children to stop over-sexualizing themselves, regardless of their own sex. Then perhaps the young girls that Mrs. Hall, along with much of society, picks on might get a break from the unjust blame and contempt and responsibility.

Because we all recognize the importance of raising virtuous children. Many have noted that Ms. Cyrus and Mr. Thicke are notably devoid of certain virtues like respect, for self or others, as an explanation for their overtly, almost offensively sexual behavior. (Which is perhaps unfair to Ms. Cyrus because she’s only in her early 20s and therefore hasn’t finished developing the part of her brain that houses virtue, while Mr. Thicke is in his 30s and has no excuse.)

Such judgment may be true, academically. I certainly wouldn’t wish to act like Ms. Cyrus, because her performance at the VMAs seemed degrading and elicited disgust in me. I hope I could make that judgment without judging her to be a bad person–after all, most people do things because they think they are good things to do, not because they have malice in their heart. Yet condemning Ms. Cyrus, or any young women who uses sex as a form of allure in what they say, or how they dress, or even (yes) what they do, is shifting the blame. It binds upon them some of our own individual guilt about sex or sexuality, and it is a mean and bullying pathway to feel good about ourselves.

So let’s start by treating everyone, perhaps especially the over-sexed among us, with dignity, and let’s teach our children the same. It’s better for us, better for our relationships, better for the people we meet–and it will be better in all those ways for our children, and for those who meet them.

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